Oct. 9, 2006
By Graham Hays
RICHMOND, Va. -- University of Portland junior Stephanie Lopez learned early in life that family is not something passive that happens to you; it's a state of mind that is most fulfilling when you actively give it to others.
So perhaps it's no surprise that one of the best young defenders in the nation has spent the past two months giving all that she can of herself to three different elite teams.
Lopez, 20, missed the start of Portland's college season while serving as captain of the United States' team that competed in Russia at the Under-20 World Championships. And since returning, she has been called away from the Pilots three more times to play for coach Greg Ryan and the senior national team in games against Mexico, Chinese Taipei and Iceland.
All in all, she played in just five of Portland's first 14 games as the Pilots look to defend last season's national title. The circumstances are less than ideal, but the opportunity is impossible to ignore.
"It's difficult, but you can't replicate playing for your nation," Lopez said. "That's just been amazing, playing in the youth world championships and getting to play in these games, and as a young player, just taking every opportunity I can to play with the women's team. And it's hard to sacrifice part of my college season, but my team is so understanding and supportive. And they're a great team, and I know that they can do well without me."
And although the Pilots didn't necessarily thrive without Lopez, tying Florida in their opener Aug. 25 and losing to Florida State two days later (they also lost to North Carolina in the first game with Lopez in the lineup), they did survive. But staying in the hunt for the College Cup grew decidedly more difficult just hours before Lopez had to board a plane to join the national team for its game against Iceland, when teammate Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL in a game against Washington State. Rapinoe, Portland's leading scorer, would have joined Lopez on the flight to Richmond as part of Ryan's roster for the game; instead, she'll miss the remainder of the season.
Dealing with her teammate's injury only reinforced Lopez's dilemma of being torn between two worlds.
"That was really difficult with Megan getting hurt, and I think everyone was pretty upset with that," Lopez said. "We did get the win that night, though, and so I think that made us all feel a little better that we got that win for her. It was tough, because my flight was at 7 the next morning, so I didn't really get the feel of the team, leaving right away. It's hard to do that, going from one team when you're so involved with them and your heart is with them, then to have to take a flight out to the East Coast."
But for Lopez, who possesses an emotional maturity that far exceeds her actual years, life has long been about making the most of the time you have. Although she has just one brother by birth, Lopez has a large and ever-changing family. Her mother, Cindy, took in more than 50 foster children, some remaining with the family for a few hours, others for much longer. As Lopez put it, living in that environment showed her early that "there's a lot more to life than soccer."
Lopez has gained wisdom in the occasionally cutthroat world of elite soccer, which too often jades, disillusions or isolates others.
"And bringing that to all the different experiences and environments -- I think I've seen that more and more as I've gotten older," Lopez said. "I've seen the opportunities to come in here, not only just to play but to meet some awesome girls and some awesome people. And I know that my parents have instilled that in me, because with how much they took in all the foster kids and foster babies, and how they loved them and gave of themselves, they definitely are role models for me."
The family permanently adopted two children, Justin and Daniel, whom Lopez adores, but she learned to deal with the emotional ups and downs of other faces coming and going. And she still draws on that in her soccer career, although in far less meaningful circumstances.
"You're in and out of different teams with different people, but you give to the different people what you can, the different teammates that you have," Lopez said. "Just know that it's temporary, but hopefully you'll see them down the road. ... I think with having so many kids around the house, I definitely had to take more of a passive role, not trying to draw too much attention. So yeah, just leading by example, and I think that's really taught me how to be a good teammate. Just to see that there are a lot of needs on the team, and make sure I can help out with those. I guess I'm not the most demanding, or high-maintenance player, because of that, having those kids around the house."
The result, somewhat ironically, is a player seemingly destined to be at the center of attention for both college and country.
"She's got a lot of talent, there's no question," said U.S. assistant coach Bret Hall, who works with the team's defensive players. "She's got good speed, good in the air. Even though she's not really physically strong -- not that she's weak -- but she's aggressive. She's more like a blade. Some people could be like a club; she's more like a blade. She's sharp, so she gets in on her tackles. But she's also really good at going forward, you know, getting up in the attack. She's very calm and composed on the ball."
Heather Mitts knows what it takes to succeed at outside back at the highest level. After getting a chance to earn regular starts in 2004, Mitts quickly became a cornerstone of the back line. She has been struck by Lopez's maturity.
"She's really composed on the ball; she plays great balls," Mitts said. "She has really good focus out there. For a young player, I'm just really impressed with the fact that she's able to step in with the situation she's in and contribute right away."
Still behind Mitts and Lori Chalupny on the depth chart at outside back for the national team (as well as veteran Christie Rampone, who has played both outside and in the middle this summer), Lopez is not guaranteed a spot on next summer's World Cup roster, assuming the United States qualifies, as expected. But it's also not hard to imagine her making the trip at 21. It's something she clearly would cherish.
"That would be so special," Lopez said. "I think sometimes it doesn't even really hit me -- every time I come in [to the national team], I look around when we're having a meeting and I'm like, 'Wow, I'm playing with these players.' These players that I've looked up to and that I've wanted to be like. And I'm there with them. So it's just a constant balance of really pushing and feeling like I can make the roster, but then also just of respect for them and what they bring to the game. Just making the most of the opportunity, never taking it for granted, but really believing I can be there.
"So it would mean a lot. You know, it's the next step. Every player wants to get there, and I feel like I'm right there. I'm right there, but there's so much more to go. I saw that today in practice. Just looking at Christie Rampone and Kate Markgraf on the ball. You know, they're a lot older than me, but they still have it. I can still look at them and learn a lot from them."
Between now and then, Lopez will rejoin the Pilots as they enter the heart of their conference schedule. Without Rapinoe, the offense will have to accelerate a diversification plan that began when Christine Sinclair graduated after last season.
"Our coach, Garrett [Smith], has been trying to really work on us just developing a well-balanced offense and not just relying on one player," Lopez said. "Angie Woznuk is going to do well at center mid, just getting assists, and hopefully we can balance it all out and come up with a solution for not having Megan."
Lopez also mentioned Rachael Rapinoe, Megan's sister, and freshman Michelle Enyeart as key components of the offense. Enyeart recently earned WCC Player of the Week honors after scoring three goals in wins against regional rivals Washington and Oregon.
But the defense will also play a role in picking up the slack for Portland, just as it played a critical, although somewhat overlooked, role in the team's championship last season. Speaking before a game with Canada's national team this summer, Sinclair talked about how the defense, which didn't allow a goal in the Final Four, was unfairly overshadowed by the team's potent offense.
"And our defense understood that, and our goalkeeper, Cori [Alexander], knew she wasn't going to get a lot of props," Lopez said. "But I know our defense did pride ourselves on how many shutouts we got -- I think we tied for the school record for shutouts."
With Lopez returning to anchor the defense, the Pilots should have a chance to battle Santa Clara for the conference title and once again be a factor in the NCAA Tournament. And for all the logistical problems inherent in her roles, Lopez's experience with soccer at the highest level could pay dividends for the Pilots.
"When you're on a national team, you have to hold yourself to a certain standard," Lopez said. "You can't take days off -- sometimes you do, but you really can't. And I think my coach is good at reminding me of that and giving me the time off when he sees that I'm mentally tired or physically tired. But I just wanted to show the players at Portland what the national team is all about, and that I do represent that and to be proud of that. And I know they respect me for that, and I hope they see the heart that I bring."
As unassuming and humble off the field as she is lethal on the pitch setting up the attack with her left foot, Lopez possesses the perspective necessary to transform skill into stardom. But she's not on this journey for herself; that's what families, and teams, are all about.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.